Worldwide law enforcements have urged Meta to rectify its decision of making encryption as a default feature across all its platforms, citing online child safety concerns.
The FBI, Interpol and the UK’s National Crime Agency are some of the 15 bodies making up the Virtual Global Taskforce (VGT), which has called the plan "a purposeful design choice that degrades safety systems" against child sex abuses.
The news comes as the UK is reviewing the controversial Online Safety Bill, seeking to regulate encrypted messaging apps in the name of online safety. Meta's company WhatsApp was also one of the signatories of an open letter published on April 17 urging the government to rethink its position.
Encryption to "blindfold" child sex abuse online
"The VGT is calling for all industry partners to fully appreciate the impact of implementing system design decisions that result in blindfolding themselves to child sexual abuse (CSA) occurring on their platforms, or reduces their capacity to identify CSA and keep children safe," reads an official statement.
End-to-end encryption (E2E) refers to the practice of scrambling data into an unreadable form so that no one, even the provider itself, can see what users send to each other. This is, for example, the basis of how many security software work, including VPN services.
While WhatsApp has always protected users' conversations with E2E by default, Facebook and Instagram users currently have to decide whether or not to activate the security option. To boost people's privacy, Meta's plan is to expand default-encrypted DMs to all its platforms - on Facebook by the end of 2023, on Instagram on a later date.
"We don't think people want us reading their private messages, so have developed safety measures that prevent, detect and allow us to take action against this heinous abuse, while maintaining online privacy and security," a Meta spokesperson told Ars Technica.
The company also said it is looking to ensure its plan is still on track to be completed on time.
Finding a better way to protect children online is an especially pressing matter right now. Child sex abuses are on the rise, with the majority of reports coming from electronic service providers - the VGT argues.
"The abuse will not stop just because companies decide to stop looking," the law enforcement taskforce wrote, adding that Meta is currently "the leading reporter of detected child sexual abuse."
The statement also goes on, citing the case of UK sexual predator David Wilson and how police managed to successfully prosecute the offenders by accessing over 250,000 messages through Facebook.
Tensions between tech companies looking to secure their users' data and law enforcement seeking to better monitor conversations to catch bad guys have been growing over the years. Encryption is under attack everywhere now, with proposed laws specifically targeting the practice being reviewed by both EU and UK lawmakers.
Tech companies and experts keep pointing out, though, that weakening encryption and undermining users' privacy would result in more harm than good in the long run. After all, criminals are likely to turn to illegal apps to keep evading the law - whether E2E on Facebook will be on or not.
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Chiara is a multimedia journalist committed to covering stories to help promote the rights and denounce the abuses of the digital side of life—wherever cybersecurity, markets and politics tangle up. She mainly writes news, interviews and analysis on data privacy, online censorship, digital rights, cybercrime, and security software, with a special focus on VPNs, for TechRadar Pro, TechRadar and Tom’s Guide. Got a story, tip-off or something tech-interesting to say? Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org